Meritocracy

I’m posting this here, while I would have replied to Taryn Fox’s blog but couldn’t do it without subscribing to something….

(I’m throwing away all of the text I wrote yesterday and starting over, I’ll instead try to write something shorter).

First and foremost, please remember that GNOME projects are indeed mostly volunteer driven, except for a few projects in GNOME which may be dominated at times by developers all working at a given company (and in those corner cases, the meritocracy approach may not apply as strictly).

In most cases, the maintainer is the only one that actually cares about the given project enough to weather the storm. Example, if I had not been so determined to make something out of Glade for a number of years in my spare time… believe me that the project would have died, in the same way that if Juan Pablo did not take care of Glade these last couple years, nobody else would have taken charge for the long term. I know this because I see the flood of contributors who come and go, the ones who stay the course and show dedication are few and far between. It’s only fair that we afford a special level of trust to those who work hard and stay the course.

Yes there are things that can be improved, hopefully we can all take criticism and try not to hurt people’s feelings etc etc, but please consider the cruel alternatives to meritocracy.

The alternative to meritocracy as I see it are those “Pay to get in Boys Clubs”, what I mean by “Boys Club” is you know… those people who’s daddy was rich or knew the right people, and so were able to go to the most reputable universities and have all the opportunities that others did not. Now let me stress that not all members of these clubs have an arrogant sense of self entitlement, however sadly some of them do in my experience, also most corporate human resource departments are unconditionally biased to hire only people who hold some kind of university degree (or even, those who hold a degree from a first world country).

Meritocracy helps us to level the playing field, it gives a chance to those of us who grew up in a cardboard box or in a third world country, to prove that they can indeed make just as worthy contributions as those of us who attended one of these rich kid clubs/universities and also get the same recognition, provided they at least did their homework (whether the walls of that home were made of brick, wood, or only cardboard).

This is something worth fighting for, worth protecting.

13 Responses to “Meritocracy”

  1. Alex says:

    GNOME doesn´t look like a meritocracy, more of a mediocracy. If GNOME were a meritocracy then GNOME Shell, one of the worst user interfaces ever would have been discarded.

  2. You appear to have missed the entire point, and instead argued from the first principles of a naive modern interpretation of the meaning of “meritocracy” in isolation from the entire conversation.

    A clue: “pay to get in” and “meritocracy” are not antonyms. In this case, they are very nearly synonyms.

    – Chris

  3. tvb says:

    @Alex: I wont get into a conversation about how good or bad the GNOME Shell is, but I have to admit that I don’t like how GNOME Shell was introduced into GNOME releases. In the sense that module proposal period was completely thrown out of the window with the inclusion of the Shell and the coming of GNOME 3.0.

  4. tvb says:

    @Chris Cunningham:

    You’re right in the sense that the definition of meritocracy can and will be argued

    From wikipedia: “Supporters of meritocracies do not necessarily agree on the nature of “merit”, however, they do tend to agree that “merit” itself should be a primary consideration during evaluation.”

    However in my experiences with GNOME as a meritocracy, the definition of “merit” is indeed a combination of ones demonstrated ability and willingness to contribute to the community in various ways.

    To me, at least in GNOME; meritocracy is the complete antithesis of “pay to get in”, here is where you throw your degree out of the window and see if your arguments really stand up on the mailing list.

    That is indeed worth fighting for, we do not afford merit to people in GNOME based on university degree, race or gender at all, at least in my experience with GNOME. We may even pay special attention to the women from the outreach program when reviewing patches, if only because we specifically, as maintainers, want to make those newcomers feel included. That may be a good or a bad thing.

    My intention was not to make anyone feel bad (I did read all the comments on 3 blog posts). On the contrary, I just want to communicate some of the really important values that we have in _our_ meritocracy.

    Yes I am self taught in the field of computing, Yes I’ve had bad experiences at companies (desk jobs) dealing with the self-entitled arrogant types, programmers and HR representatives alike.

    I have GNOME to thank for accepting me on the merit of my contributions, and not writing me off because I don’t belong to some sort of pay to get in club.

    And I really hope that that can be an inspiration to those who may feel sidelined at times.

  5. Charles de Very Richly says:

    “a combination of one’s demonstrated ability and willingness to contribute to the community in various ways”

    ABILITY

    Who are those most likely to have the highest level of ability? Surely not those who grew up in a box. The overwhelming cause of having high ability is having wealthy parents: the wealthier, the better. There is always a nice rags-to-riches anecdote to ease our minds, but the data suggests that social mobility is low.

    WILLINGNESS

    Let us say, for the sake of argument and without meaning anything by it (oh no, let this not be taken as a specific example!), that some particular community, let’s say… engineers of various kinds, are a sexist group with poor interpersonal skills. They only get on with people like them and are hostile to both outsiders, and criticism, which they always reject either angrily or by trying to weasel out of it with “reasoned arguments” that are surprisingly full of holes, for a group that deals with procedural logic day-in and day-out (I suppose a lot of software is buggy, too).

    Let’s say that you’re a woman. Are you more, or are you less, willing to contribute to this group than, say, a socially useless, white male? And whose fault is that?

    Of course, I am not talking about any group in particular. Why, I wouldn’t dare…

  6. You’re a straight, white, Western guy. You’ve succeeded in free software. You’re convinced that you’ve done so because of the “meritocracy” which means that you got where you are solely on your contributions. And so are all the other straight, white,, Western guys who make up 95% of your peers. That is the problem. You don;t appear to understand what you’re arguing against.

    – Chris

  7. clique != meritocracy

    From someone who worked very hard for a number of years and was still always treated as an outsider.

  8. tvb says:

    A.) I have no highschool or higher education

    B.) I did spend my younger years hitchhiking around the country, living mostly out of a cardboard box (arguably, this taught me a sense of responsibility better than most schools do, in the streets the message is usually “if you’re assignment is late, perhaps we’ll break your legs to send a message”)

    C.) Even though I did manage to get a job in my early twenties (and I was lucky) where I learned a lot more about computing, I would never have been recognized by that corporate society on merit alone. I would be consistently paid less than any newly hired university graduate (that’s right, valued _less_ than any _newcomer_).

    Perhaps not many from my background would have tried to get into computing, or be interested to, but anyone with access to an old discarded computer (like my first hand-me-down at the age of 19) with linux installed, and a crap job answering the phone at a taxi company, does indeed have the ability of learning computing.

    @Charles: So yes perhaps the statistics say that I am an unlikely case, but from my own subjective perspective, it would be a much more unlikely case in a world without GNOME.

    So yes, I am male, heterosexual and white, perhaps you can even tell those three things just by reading my email address ? Perhaps.

    The fact remains, that while I would have been rejected or frowned upon in my early employments in the “corporate world”, I do feel that in GNOME instead I was judged based on the things I said on mailing lists (and I did say some pretty stupid things, and learned from that), and by my eventual contributions (few years later when I felt more capable). In this way GNOME gave me a chance to participate in something great, a
    chance that would not have been afforded me otherwise.

    @Máirín: I really don’t mean to throw stones, I don’t know what your personal experience in GNOME was, but I’ve seen you regularly posting on planet over the past years and I have to say I’m surprised and saddened to hear this. Do you feel like an outsider in GNOME or are you referring to something else ?

    Would you say that you are being treated as an outsider mostly on IRC, Mailing Lists, or at Conferences ? (and I ask this only because last year was my first time attending any FOSS conference… perhaps the face-to-face aspect is different, for me attending a conference was about meeting the people face-to-face, with whom I’ve already worked with for many years).

  9. tvb, I still blog but I stopped posting to Planet GNOME some time ago. I was not treated as if I was good enough when I did things for GNOME and honestly I’m just getting over the insecurity complex that treatment caused me. Could just be in my head, but I’m pretty sure it’s not, other projects I am involved with I feel have treated me with a lot more respect. Maybe I don’t have the right personality to get along in GNOME. Not sure. But it’s a lot less effort and a lot more enjoyable for me to work on other projects where I’m invited in and my contributions are treated as useful rather than constantly fighting to be taken seriously and still always feeling like I’m an outsider who will never be accepted in the ‘inner circle.’ Maybe if the women’s outreach program existed when I was starting out I would have had a better experience. I think it also complicates things that I’m a designer, not a hacker.

  10. tvb says:

    Máirín, thank you for being honest.

    I’m not sure what I can say except that it always feels bad to see people ‘leave’.

    Perhaps its a flaw in my own character that I fail to see the actual mistreatment of people when it happens (not that I can personally be in all places at once in the various projects under the GNOME umbrella, but I think I’m around often enough that I should be able to catch a glimpse of what’s going on).

    For my part, I will make an effort to be more observant. As people seem to indicate there is a problem with our ‘hacker culture’, if I don’t see clearly what it is… then I must be a part of the said problem.

    One thing I can say is that we do have identifiable issues with how hackers and designers interact (that has seemed to be a big issue in 2012 particularly with GNOME 3). Usually it seems that a given project is run by a single person or two, followed by a hand full of occasional contributors… which means most of the work falls on these one or two people running a given project.

    As someone who’s spent the time to hammer out the code for months on end in your spare time, you might take great pleasure in adding your final design touch (the presentation of the thing is often the ‘fun part’).

    From this particular perspective, it’s very hard to just give the ‘fun part’ away. I can easily understand that maintainers generally need more convincing to change a presentation aspect of their software than a technical one… on this front; designers and hackers alike need to make a better effort in their communications with each other (both parties need to realize that their word is not GOD, and that there may be some fabric of truth in what the other is trying to say… good practice in any conversation).

    In any case, I’m rambling on now, I am sorry that you’ve had a bad experience with GNOME, and I hope you won’t hate us hackers… at least not for too long ;-)

  11. tvb: “To me, at least in GNOME; meritocracy is the complete antithesis of “pay to get in”, here is where you throw your degree out of the window and see if your arguments really stand up on the mailing list.”

    The problem in that view of things is that the degree you’re lucky enough to have been able to attain gives you a distinct advantage in crafting arguments that will stand up on a mailing list, especially when said mailing list is likely to be populated by others who had much the same experience in much the same institutions as you.

    Intangibles such as the way you write a mail, the way you construct an argument, the way you present your code and so on have a significant impact on how others judge the ‘merit’ of your mails and arguments and code, even if – taken objectively – they really don’t indicate merit at all.

    The problem Taryn identified with some F/OSS meritocracies is not necessarily the bare theoretical concept of ‘merit’, but the practical interpretation of ‘merit’ which tends to be applied.

  12. er, sorry, the ‘you’ in the above post should be read as a generic ‘you’ (the same ‘you’ from your quotation), not ‘you, tvb’.

  13. “In any case, I’m rambling on now, I am sorry that you’ve had a bad experience with GNOME, and I hope you won’t hate us hackers… at least not for too long ;-)

    Certainly I won’t, after all, I am married to one ;-) and am close friends with several more. In general I very much appreciate the efforts of GNOME, and while I’m sad it seems like it’s best for everyone if I simply stay out of it except for on a social level, I don’t have any huge hard feelings about it just a little sadness. I’ll just keep on keeping on where I feel more useful and hope my efforts help free software overall. :)

    Also I very much the work you and Juan have done with glade – we used it extensively in the anaconda redesign for Fedora and I was very surprised and pleased with how quickly you guys responded to requests for help and bug reports, especially given that you both maintain it on purely a volunteer basis!